Watch: Sights and sounds from Saturday's win
Then there were four: USL Championship's conference finals set
All four home teams advanced on Saturday night in the conference semifinals of the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs, presented by TwinSpires.
Those results set up a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Louisville City FC, while in the Western Conference Final, Orange County SC and San Antonio FC will face each other for the first time in the postseason and vie for their first trip to the USL Championship Final.
The Rowdies continued the defense of their Eastern Conference title with a 1-0 win against Birmingham Legion FC at Al Lang Stadium as Yann Ekra’s second-half goal proved the difference in a game that saw the hosts record their 15th shutout of the season (Full Report | Box Score). Louisville City FC, meanwhile, earned a 1-0 win against the Charlotte Independence as Cameron Lancaster scored on a penalty kick in the 89th minute at Lynn Family Stadium (Full Report | Box Score).
The sides will now meet for a second consecutive postseason in the Eastern Conference Final, where the scene will shift this season to Tampa Bay’s Al Lang Stadium. In their prior encounter a year ago, the Rowdies claimed a 2-1 win against LouCity at Lynn Family Stadium to even the overall playoff series between the clubs at one win apiece.
Orange County advanced to the Western Conference Final for the second time in its history after defeating Oakland Roots SC 6-5 in a penalty shootout at Championship Soccer Stadium, with Ronaldo Damus scoring the decisive penalty kick. OCSC goalkeeper Patrick Rakovsky made a save to open the sixth round of the shootout, and Damus converted the next kick, giving the club-record crowd of 5,218 cause for celebrations (Full Report | Box Score).
The Southern California club will host San Antonio, which rode a pair of goals from Santiago Patino to a 3-1 victory against Rio Grande Valley FC at Toyota Field in the first postseason edition of the South Texas Derby (Full Report | Box Score). Nathan Fogaca also found the net for San Antonio, while Elvis Amoh converted a penalty kick midway through the second half for the Toros. SAFC advanced to its first Western Conference Final.
The spotlight now turns to Saturday, Nov. 20, which will feature a doubleheader of Conference Final action on ESPN+.
2021 USL Championship Playoffs, presented by TwinSpires
(All times Eastern; home team listed first)
Saturday’s Eastern Conference Final
Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Louisville City FC, 7:30 p.m. ET, Al Lang Stadium (ESPN+)
Saturday’s Western Conference Final
Orange County SC vs. San Antonio FC, 10 p.m. ET, Championship Soccer Stadium (ESPN+)
Bell: What we learned from LouCity's win over Charlotte
Louisville City FC defeated the Charlotte Independence on Saturday night in a feisty USL Championship Eastern Conference Semifinal featuring 10 yellow cards and dangerous chances for both sides. The victory advanced the boys in purple to their seventh straight Eastern Conference final in as many seasons after Cameron Lancaster dramatically punched the ball into the top corner off a Jonathan Gomez-won penalty kick in the 89th minute.
While the Independence have never won in Louisville, dropping to 0-5-2 all time, Charlotte wasn’t a brush-aside team by any means. The visiting roster included former Leicester City and Premier League champion center back Christian Fuchs as well as striker Dane Kelly, the USL Championship’s all-time leading scorer. Charlotte entered having knocked out Memphis 901 FC in a first-round playoff game.
But with this victory, LouCity will travel to play the Tampa Bay Rowdies at 7:30 p.m. Saturday with a spot in the USL Championship Final on the line.
“This was a difficult game against a very good opponent,” head coach Danny Cruz said. “Ultimately, I thought we did enough to win. Every single week [the players] give me everything that they have. The preparation this week was excellent, and the opponent presented exactly the way we thought they would. We talked about advancing, and that’s what matters.”
Here’s more of what we learned…
Defense continues run of form
Against Charlotte, LouCity made it a third straight clean sheet for the first time all year in a season where the boys in purple have leaked goals late in halves. With shutouts against Birmingham Legion in the season finale, playoff first rounder versus Miami FC and now Charlotte, Cruz’s back unit has stepped up when it matters most. Starting goalkeeper was a question much of the season, but Chris Hubbard stepped up with three huge saves against Charlotte. Hubbard was also dominant coming out to get crosses and corners to minimize the Independence’s chances.
Though Charlotte took 10 shots against LouCity, only three of those attempts were on frame compared to LouCity’s five on target out of 13. LouCity’s aerial dominance kept Charlotte’s Kelly quiet throughout the game. City center backs Sean Totsch and Wes Charpie won 90% of their aerial duels on average opposed to Charlotte center-backs’ 37%.
LouCity outside back Jonathan Gomez and Man of the Match winger Brian Ownby led the team in tackles, tallying two apiece. Gomez and Totsch topped interception stats for the night with a pair each.
Defensive-minded players such as Tyler Gibson, Pat McMahon, and Napo Matsoso came into the game to hold onto the clean sheet, with Matsoso getting his first minutes since he was injured back on Oct. 16.
In addition to his game-winning penalty, Lancaster registered four shots against Charlotte, tied for the most on the pitch. His 21 goals on the season are level for third in the USL with Memphis’ Kyle Murphy. Lancaster isn’t far off this season’s top scorer Hadji Barry (25), whose team fell in the first round of the playoffs to Orange County. Lancaster will go head to head next weekend with Tampa Bay’s Sebastian Guenzatti, second in scoring across the USL Championship with 22 goals. Impressively, Lancaster has put up phenomenal numbers despite missing seven games due to injury.
Lancaster has scored in 16 LouCity games so far this season, with four of those being multi-goal matches. The Englishman is also the only the second player in the USL Championship to ever record two 20-plus goal seasons. His other came in 2018 when he scored 26 and claimed the league’s Golden Boot.
“If there was a camera zoomed in on my face, I would be repeating, ‘This is what you do, Cam,’” Cruz said of his reaction to Lancaster’s late try from the spot. “I saw him all week take penalties. He’s confident anytime he steps up to the spot.”
What we learned
LouCity’s test against Miami FC last weekend seemed beneficial to the club’s play against Charlotte. The boys in purple looked to absorb pressure better after Miami FC came out strong last weekend.
Looking ahead, the Tampa Bay Rowdies present the biggest challenge of the season yet. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Rowdies now boast a 43% chance of hoisting the USL trophy versus LouCity’s 25%.
A win at Tampa Bay would send City to the finals with a good shot of adding a third star to its crest, especially considering top Western Conference seeds El Paso Locomotive and Phoenix Rising were knocked out in the first round of playoffs. An in-form defensive crew certainly helps LouCity going to Tampa Bay.
LouCity’s squad health is looking better than ever, with only young center back Josh Wynder held out of Saturday’s game. Matsoso’s return is important, as he’s a versatile midfielder
“We can’t undervalue how great our fans are and we won’t have our same full stadium,” Paolo DelPiccolo said about playing away next weekend. “At the same time, luckily, Tampa Bay has a proper field, which isn’t always the case, so it’ll be a good game and they’re a great team. For us, it’s just a normal challenge of playing a good opponent.”
Lancaster converts late, sends LouCity on to Eastern Conference Final
Cameron Lancaster came up in the clutch Saturday for Louisville City FC, drilling an 89th-minute penalty kick to send the club on to yet another USL Championship Eastern Conference Final appearance.
The boys in purple prevailed by a 1-0 score over the Charlotte Independence at Lynn Family Stadium, setting up a rematch of the 2020 conference final. It’ll be a 7:30 p.m. kickoff next Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium.
Left back Jonathan Gomez led to the game-winning moment while working on the edge of Charlotte’s box. The Independence’s Joel Johnson went for a sliding tackle, and rather than contact the ball with his foot, it bounced off his trailing arm.
Seconds later, Lancaster stepped up with a thundering strike to mark his team-leading 21st goal across all competitions this season.
“If there was a camera zoomed in on my face, I was repeating over and over again, ‘Cam, this is what you do. Cam, this is what you do.’ Because it is,” said head coach Danny Cruz. “I saw him all week take penalties. He is confident anytime he steps up to the spot.”
“It’s the playoffs,” added LouCity captain Paolo DelPiccolo, “and we’ve got this awesome stadium that keeps the noise, and the fans are going. So for us it’s a really uplifting feeling and it gives us the energy we need. No one gets tired out there. It’s a really awesome experience playing here.”
As a result, LouCity will vie for its seventh conference final in as many seasons since starting play in 2015. The club is a win away from a third Eastern Conference crown and has won two USL Championship titles, going back to back in 2017 and 2018.
“You don’t see that all around the world — that is for sure,” Cruz said of the appearance streak. “I think it is a testament to the organization, to everything that everybody does here at Louisville City every day. That is from the back office to the players. It is the collective goal that the entire club has. To be able to do that year in and year out is certainly special.
“I am proud to be the manager of this team. I am proud to be the manager for this club and there won’t be a day that I take that for granted.”
Lancaster’s conversation capped a night of close chances but no finishing touch for LouCity, which tried all 13 of its shots from inside the box. Five landed on target, four others were blocked, and the home side in the process controlled 55.1% of possession.
A crowd of 9,155 — a LouCity record for a home conference semifinal — hung on every moment. Those included a nice 33rd-minute sequence that saw Lancaster slide a shot just wide of the post; a 57th-minute DelPiccolo flick that commanded a save; and point-blank Jorge Gonzalez shot also turned away in the 65th minute.
At the other end of the pitch, goalkeeper Chris Hubbard delivered in every moment, making five saves and punching away two other Charlotte chances. The clean sheet was LouCity’s season-high third straight with this also the club’s third consecutive 1-0 score line.
LouCity’s one of four clubs left playing in the USL Championship — along with Tampa Bay, which defeated the boys in purple in last year’s Eastern Conference Final.
“I’ve watched them play quite a few times this year only because they’ve been doing well,” DelPiccolo said of next weekend’s foe. “Obviously they’re a good team and they’ve got good players through and through. So, for us it’s just another challenge.”
“It’s an opportunity to play for a trophy,” Cruz added. “That is what this group has done year in and year out. This is just another opportunity. We understand the stakes. We understand what it takes to accomplish that. I am confident in the group of guys that I have in there.”
Regardless of the Western Conference Final’s result, the LouCity-Tampa Bay winner will host the USL Championship Final at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 28.
Game Summary: Louisville City FC vs. Charlotte Independence
Date: Nov. 13, 2021
Venue: Lynn Family Stadium
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.
Weather: 37 degrees, clear
Man of the Match: Brian Ownby
Louisville City FC (0, 1, 1)
Charlotte Independence (0, 0, 0)
Louisville City FC:
89’ Cameron Lancaster (pen)
Louisville City FC: 1 – Chris Hubbard, 19 – Oscar Jimenez, 4 – Sean Totsch, 6 – Wesley Charpie, 42 – Jonathan Gomez, 13 – Corben Bone (85’ 7 – Napo Matsoso), 11 – Niall McCabe (71’ 29 – Antoine Hoppenot), 36 – Paolo DelPiccolo (71’ 12 – Tyler Gibson), 10 – Brian Ownby, 9 – Jorge Gonzalez Asensi (90’ 15 – Pat McMahon), 17 – Cameron Lancaster (90’ 21 – Kyle Greig)
Subs not used: 1 – Parker Siegfried, 20 – Jimmy McLaughlin
Head Coach: Danny Cruz
Charlotte Independence: 1 – Austin Pack, 2 – Kevin Riascos (90’ 8 – Marcelo Palomino), 3 – Hugh Roberts, 22 – Christian Fuchs, 4 – Jake Areman, 7 – Joel Johnson (90’ 16 – Jose Bizama), 13 – Brandt Bronico, 32 – Gabriel Obertan (34’ 9 – Irvin Parra), 56 – Sylvian Marveaux, 19 – Enzo Martinez, 29 – Dane Kelly
Subs not used: 33 – Brandon Miller, 10 – Valentin Sabella, 12 – Adam Armour, 88 – Christian Dean
Head Coach: Mike Jeffries
Stats Summary: Louisville City FC / Charlotte Independence
Shots: 13 / 10
Shots on Goal: 5 / 3
Possession: 55.1% / 44.9%
Fouls: 14 / 25
Offside: 0 / 4
Corner Kicks: 4 / 5
Louisville City FC
5’ Paolo DelPiccolo (yellow card)
21’ Brian Ownby (yellow card)
43’ Niall McCabe (yellow card)
35’ Dane Kelly (yellow card)
44’ Irvin Parra (yellow card)
76’ Kevin Riascos (yellow card)
88’ Enzo Martinez (yellow card)
88’ Austin Pack (yellow card)
90’ Christian Fuchs (yellow card)
90’+ Joel Johnson (red card)
Referee: Elijio Arreguin
Highlights: LouCity 1, Charlotte 0
Cruz: LouCity's players 'give me everything that they have'
Preview: What to watch for with LouCity vs. Charlotte Independence
As Louisville City FC head coach Danny Cruz said after last weekend’s opening-round USL Championship Playoffs victory, “the whole point is to move on” this time of year.
The boys in purple will look to do just that again when hosting the Charlotte Independence for an Eastern Conference Semifinal that kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Saturday inside Lynn Family Stadium.
With a victory, LouCity would go on to its seventh Eastern Conference Final appearance in as many seasons against the winner of Birmingham Legion FC at the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
City rides in on a three-game winning streak having out-scored recent opponents 5-1. The run includes consecutive clean sheets in critical games, first an Oct. 30 victory over Birmingham that clinched a No. 1 playoff seed before another shutout win over Miami FC last Saturday to start the postseason.
Charlotte could consider itself in even better form amid its first playoff appearance. The Independence are 11-1-1 in their last 13 games and boast plenty of talent, including the USL Championship’s all-time leading scorer, Dane Kelly, and Christian Fuchs, who was part of Leicester City’s English Premier League champion side in 2015-2016.
LouCity and Charlotte last met in 2019. The Independence have never won in Louisville, going 0-4-2 here over the years.
With the USL Championship Playoffs down to their final eight teams, here’s what to watch for Saturday…
Head coach Danny Cruz says…
“The most enjoyable part about working with this group is that day in and day out they bring the right mentality, they bring the right fight and they execute the ideas. Not much has changed, other than we know we have a very good opponent coming in for a game that you have to win to advance.”
• For Starting XI and in-game updates, follow @loucityfc on Twitter and Louisville City FC on Facebook. Also find us at louisvillecityfc on Instagram. Live stats can be found at www.loucity.com/match-center.
• On the WBKI/TheCW and ESPN+ call: Mike Watts (play-by-play) and Gary Bailey (color).
• And for ESPN 680/105.7 on the radio: Dylan Terry and Casey Whitfield.
Notes to know
Playoff scenarios: Should the boys in purple defeat Charlotte, they would be in line to travel to Tampa Bay, the Atlantic Division’s No. 1 seed, or host Birmingham, the Central Division’s No. 2, pending results of the league’s other Eastern Conference Semifinal. Both top seeds in the West were already upset, meaning the Eastern Conference champ will host the final at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 28.
Bigger picture: Along with the benefits of a potential home USL Championship Final, results in the Western Conference have boosted LouCity’s overall chances of winning the title. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the boys in purple have a 19% chance to put a third star over their crest this fall, making them the second choice behind Tampa Bay’s 33%.
What are the odds: The USL Championship Playoffs are presented by TwinSpires Sportsbook, which has accordingly listed betting prices for remaining teams: Tampa Bay (+5160), LouCity, (+500), San Antonio FC (+750), Birmingham (+800), Orange County SC (+1000), Rio Grande Valley FC (+1400) and Oakland Roots SC (+3300).
Home fortress: Last Saturday’s crowd of 9,097 set a new record for a LouCity playoff opener, eclipsing the 8,517 who saw the club’s first-ever postseason game back in 2015. The boys in purple continued rolling in front of their home fans, too, improving to 14-2-2 there this year. LouCity has lost just once at Lynn Family Stadium since capacity restrictions lifted in June and sport a +19 goal differential over that span.
Scoring kings: Two of the USL Championship’s most prolific goal scorers will face off Saturday with Charlotte’s Dane Kelly first all-time with 99 regular season tallies. On the LouCity side, Cameron Lancaster has upped his tally to 71, good for fourth on the list, with his second career 20-goal campaign in 2021.
Bagels again: For just the second time this year, LouCity’s defense and goalkeeper Chris Hubbard are on a clean sheet streak. The club has posted consecutive 1-0 victories between Birmingham and Miami FC results. Versus Legion FC, the boys in purple didn’t concede a single shot on target. Miami managed just one on its visit to Louisville.
Consistent 11: Playing a condensed schedule and limited by a number of injuries this season, coach Danny Cruz made changes to his lineups more often than not, with 23 of 24 rostered players making at least one start. However, for three straight games Cruz has narrowed in on the same lineup including six players who played a part in winning 2017 and 2018 USL Championship titles. Ten of the 11 were part of last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Final.
Jorge the hero: As for the newcomer to the lineup? Forward Jorge Gonzalez — on loan from Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers — only went out and scored LouCity’s game-winning goal with a 74th-minute strike against Miami FC. It marked his fourth goal across all competitions as the club’s No. 9, proving an attacking threat after missing most of the season’s first half with an injury.
Full strength City: The injury woes are ideally behind Cruz’s squad with every rostered player available for selection Saturday. That’s something the club hasn’t been able to say all year. Of last weekend’s group, three starters — Gonzalez, Corben Bone and Oscar Jimenez – recuperated from long-term ailments. Newly back in the rotation is midfielder Napo Matsoso, who had to be carried off the field late in an Oct. 16 game at Indy Eleven.
- Sean Totsch is two appearances away from 150 Louisville City FC appearances.
Cruz: LouCity bringing the right mentality to postseason
Soccer Holdings strikes unique deal with RealResponse
Soccer Holdings, LLC, has formed a pioneering partnership with RealResponse, the leading safe and secure feedback, monitoring and anonymous reporting platform for athletic teams and organizations, it was announced Tuesday.
The deal provides RealResponse’s platforms to all athletes, coaches and staff with the NWSL’s Racing Louisville FC, USL Championship’s Louisville City FC and the professional clubs’ respective youth academies.
Soccer Holdings is the first organization to make RealResponse available to a USL team or youth soccer academy. While RealResponse already partners with the NWSL, Racing is the second club in the league — joining OL Reign — to fully engage with the platform.
Along with players being able to anonymously contact the NWSL league office via RealResponse, this team specific-adoption will give Racing personnel an additional way to quickly and anonymously communicate directly with local leadership about a variety of needs.
“Providing a safe environment for players, coaches and back office staff is our No. 1 priority,” said Soccer Holdings’ president, Brad Estes. “We understand that formally reporting an issue in the workplace can be a stressful experience. This first-of-its-kind partnership with RealResponse will ensure that each of our employees have the opportunity to maintain anonymity during the reporting process, and our culture can only improve as a result.”
The Soccer Holdings partnership continues unprecedented growth for RealResponse, which has given more than 50,000 athletes the ability to share feedback safety and securely and report needs and concern to leadership. RealResponse works with more than 100 colleges and universities along with USADA, the NFLPA and USA Gymnastics.
“We are thrilled to partner with Louisville’s soccer clubs on their commitment to players and staff,” said David Chadwick, founder of RealResponse. “By providing a confidential resource for sending information directly to team officials on a broad array of needs, we are humbled to play a small part moving forward in the shared quest to keep all athletes and staff safe.”
Based in North Carolina, RealResponse was earlier this year recognized by the Charlotte Business Journal as one of the “Fifty Most Innovative Companies in the Region.” Visit RealResponse.com for more information.